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First look: Blue Jackets ready for challenge Tampa presents

Columbus enters postseason on a roll, while Lightning had historic season

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Forty-seven wins and 98 points later, the Columbus Blue Jackets enter the postseason facing a mountain to climb. 

It has nothing to do with the Jackets, who won the second-most games in franchise history, and everything to do with the accomplishments of their first-round opponent. 

All Tampa Bay did this year was win 62 games, tied for the most in NHL history, led by the historic production of Nikita Kucherov and a deep stable of talent that has allowed the Lightning to become one of the best regular-season teams ever in the game.  

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On top of that, the Lightning had little trouble with the Blue Jackets this year, winning three games by a combined score of 17-3.  

It's no wonder, then, Tampa Bay will be heavy favorites against Columbus in the opening round when it begins Wednesday, but that just makes the challenge all that sweeter to the Blue Jackets. 

"When you get to the playoffs, there are 16 teams in there," center Pierre-Luc Dubois. "Whether you're the first team to get in or the last to get in, it's the playoffs. It's a totally new season. It's a new game. It's not the same game; it tightens up a bit. A lot changes, so just to be in there, everybody has a chance." 

That is one of the unique aspects of hockey, where the top seed is no guarantee to make it out of the first round, let alone win the Stanley Cup. None of the last five teams to win the Presidents' Trophy as the regular season's best team even made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and in a seven-year span from 2006-12, four Presidents' Trophy winners were eliminated in the first round. 

A hot goalie, bounces, a dominant special teams performance or anything else can tilt a series in hockey, and it's not like Columbus backed into the playoffs having won seven of eight down the stretch while posting a goal margin of 34-14 to clinch a third straight berth in the postseason. With one more win, Columbus would have had a 100-point season after going 47-31-4. 

"I don't think that there are many teams that want to play us," said Matt Duchene, the center the Blue Jackets acquired at the deadline to bolster the forward depth. "Maybe that sounds the wrong way, but it feels like we're a dangerous team, and I think we can play with anyone in this league.  

"We're rolling four lines right now and our D guys are playing really well and we're getting good contributions from everyone, so we're doing some really good things. We want to keep on moving forward." 

Tampa Bay will be a difficult challenge, though, given the success of their regular season. The Lightning scored 325 goals this season, the most of any team in the last 23 years, and earned the fourth-most points of any team in NHL history. Their plus-103 goal differential is the best in 13 years, and the Lightning are the first team since the Penguins in 1996 to have three 40-goal scorers in Kucherov (41-87-128), Steven Stamkos (45-43-98) and Brayden Point (41-51-92).  

Kucherov himself had a historic season, with his 128 points the most in the cap era and most since Mario Lemieux had 161 in 1996. 

Still, even though Columbus was swept in three games by the Lightning, who were coached by current Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella when the franchise won its lone Stanley Cup in 2004, there were positive signs. The first matchup between the two teams, an 8-2 Tampa Bay win in October, was skewed by the four power-play goals the Lightning scored in blowing open what had a been a 3-2 game late in the second period. 

In a 4-0 January loss to the Lightning in Tampa, Columbus dominated stretches of the game but just couldn't score, a similar theme to a 5-1 setback in Nationwide Arena in February. The take-home message from those losses - the Blue Jackets can take the play to the Lightning, they simply need to take advantage of their chances. 

In addition, none of the games took place with the Jackets boasting their current roster, which includes deadline acquisitions Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid and Keith Kinkaid. 

"I'm not going to sugar coat it, they're a good team," Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. "They've obviously fed it to us a few times this year. I think we've grown and I think we understand how we have to play. We haven't played them since (the deadline). If we can get to our game, it's going to make it hard on anyone." 

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